Needed: A Little Cost-Benefit Analysis

2 November 2008 at 10:16 pm 11 comments

| Peter Klein |

Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin estimate the the probability of any given vote being decisive in Tuesday’s US election is about one in 60 million. Residents of a few states, like New Mexico, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Colorado, are especially important: their chance is one in 10 million. Oh, did I mention that your vote doesn’t matter?

Cliff sent me a couple of amusing items on People Who Don’t Get It. Here’s one on a young Chicago woman who can’t decide between McCain and Obama, and is “probably going to cram the night before the election and really study them both.” Gee, I wonder which candidate is going to win Illinois? And here’s a wonderful cartoon from the 1932 Chicago Tribune, “How to Vote Intelligently in the Primary.” Ah, where are the Colonel McCormicks of today?

Entry filed under: Public Policy / Political Economy.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joe Mahoney  |  2 November 2008 at 11:44 pm

    Peter, these comments reminded me of C.S. Lewis who said I do not pray to God with the hopes of changing God, I pray to God with the hope that it will change me.

    When I go to the polls on Tuesday to vote (in the state of Illinois) I go not go to change the outcome, I go to change me (who “rationally” did not bother to vote as a younger man).

    P.S.: As Chester Barnard noted — old men and old women plant trees (out of a sense of responsibility). Got to write that Barnard essay soon!

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  2 November 2008 at 11:59 pm

    I thought this might provoke a response from one of our fine Illinois readers!

    BTW I’ve never argued that voting per se is “irrational,” only that voting because one believes his vote will affect the outcome is, well, misguided. Voting out of a sense of civic duty, for moral or social or spiritual reasons, or whatever, is perfectly rational, in the economist’s usual sense of satisfying one’s own (subjective) preferences. (In my less tactful moments I’ve referred to “warm fuzzies.”)

  • 3. Cliff Grammich  |  3 November 2008 at 10:00 am

    Peter, don’t forget this classic:

    Joe, I probably shouldn’t confess this on Peter’s blog, but, to my knowledge, I’ve missed exactly one election in which I’ve been eligible to vote (and that for a special election in which I correctly surmised the Democrat would win regardless of my vote in an overwhelmingly Democratic district while I was working an 80+-hour per week summer job a quarter-century ago). And, yeah, I probably will vote tomorrow in Illinois, at least to throw out all the judges, as I’ve voted to do for years.

    That said, I confess I also see something in Tyler Cowen’s observation (quoted on Peter’s home page) about voting being done for “self-image.” (My wife might see even more truth to Cowen’s observation as she contemplates what she might fairly call my increasingly, um, erratic choices.) I love poring over local election returns at any level not for what they say about candidates but for what they say about how local communities may perceive themselves.

    Just one example: some Illinois community blogs I peruse set up election discussions, and it was astonishing, at least to me, how quickly these devolved into all-McCain/Obama, all the time. Not only is there no chance anything anybody says on those blogs (or this one?) will affect the presidential outcome, but there is no discussion on things we have a remote chance of affecting, e.g., con-con. But then I guess an argument over con-con doesn’t compel us to defend our sense of self or society in a way an Obama/McCain argument might.

    But, hey, if you’ve a recommendation on con-con, I really would love to hear it. That is, if Peter can tolerate the possibility his blog might have a one-in-three-million rather than a one-in-sixty-million chance of swaying an election!

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  3 November 2008 at 10:07 am

    Mike Sykuta has just told me about a marginal benefit of voting I didn’t know before: Starbucks will give you a free cup of coffee if you have one of those little stickers. I’m now rethinking my cost-benefit calculus.

  • 5. rlanglois  |  3 November 2008 at 1:39 pm

    You may also have seen this paper by Bryan Caplan called “What if the Median Voter Were a Failing Student?” I had thought of sending the link to my students in my Essentials of Economics class, but, as I am giving an exam today (the day before election day), that seemed cruel.

  • 6. Cliff Grammich  |  3 November 2008 at 6:44 pm

    Goodness, Peter, you wouldn’t trade your sterling non-voter reputation for a cup of Starbucks coffee, would you? Well, I’ll admit I’ll trade my reputation as a crank, and the local judges can breathe a tad easier, if there is a long line at my polling place tomorrow. And if there isn’t then I’ll mail you my sticker if you’d like.

    Richard, given that the much too ubiquitous tracking polls usually don’t show a candidate exceeding 50 percent until the “undecideds” have dwindled after weeks/months/years of election information overload, I don’t see how to conclude anything but the median voter is a failing student . . .

  • 7. Brian McCann  |  3 November 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Don’t be tempted, Peter – looks like it may be illegal for Starbucks to be handing out that coffee.

  • 8. gpeters  |  4 November 2008 at 9:49 am

    Actually, that’s good news for Peter. Apparently, Starbucks has changed it’s promotion so that anyone can get a free cup of coffee today, voter or non-voter (in response to the legality questions). How many Starbucks can you visit today?

  • 9. Cliff Grammich  |  4 November 2008 at 11:30 am

    Voting this morning at a local golf course I learned greens fees have been reduced to $5 for the remainder of the season. And it’s a gorgeous day here. I never thought I’d see the cost-benefit calculus of voting benefit me so well.

  • 10. Peter Klein  |  4 November 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Gary, I’m jealous of Chicagoans — they can drink coffee all day, with a fresh cup each time they vote!

  • 11. Cliff Grammich  |  4 November 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Only the living voters, Peter . . .

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